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Urgent Interventions

China: Restrictions to freedom of association

Freedom of association in China

Open letter to Jiang Zemin, Head of State, and Hu Jintao, Secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party

Paris, Geneva, 20th December 2002
By fax: 86 10 6 529 2345


The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of their joint programme the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, would like to express their concern with regard to the restrictions to freedom of association in China.

Freedom of association is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998. It is also protected by the Chinese Constitution (art. 35). However, restrictive legislation has been enacted in 1998 : Order N° 250 Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Groups; Order N° 251 Provisional Regulations on the Registration and Management of People-Organised Non-Enterprise Units; and Order N° 252 Provisional Regulations on the Registration and Management of Institutional Units. These laws expand the “registration and management” scheme previously applicable only to “social groups” to all non-profit initiatives undertaken by Chinese citizens.

The 1998 legislation raises the requirements for the establishment of a social group ; allows for a preemptive ban on the registration of an organization or unit, based on "evidence" of how it might act, and threatens those engaging in unapproved activities with unspecified criminal penalties and criminal detention ; triples the length of time required for the processing of a registration application from a social group, from 30 days to 90 days, and adds a third stage to the approval process; bars individuals who have ever being deprived of their political rights from acting as the representative or "responsible persons" of an organization ; prohibits national groups from establishing any kind of regional-level branch office, thus severely restricting the coordinating capacity of any social group and prohibits non-enterprise units from setting up any branch offices ; allows for extensive government interference in the financial affairs of groups ; increases the controls to be imposed on social groups by the government "sponsors" to which they are required to be attached.

This legislative framework restricts excessively freedom of association. In practice, people calling for human rights improvements, ranging from members of the China Democratic Party to Falun Gong practitioners, are systematically silenced. Efforts to organise independently, whether around issues of politics, religion, labour or human rights are ruthlessly repressed.

Official attitude towards independent human rights activism remains hostile; there is still no possibility of establishing rights monitoring groups inside the country. Individuals have continued to be arrested and sentenced to prison for seeking to expose rights abuses, help victims, or exercise their own rights to freedom of expression and association. Attempts to organise independent human rights groups have usually ended with activists being sent to prison.

The Tiananmen Mothers, a group representing families of protesters killed or injured in Beijing during the 1989 crackdown, are still subject to harassment and intimidation, with officials depicting as “traitors” several of the key figures. The organisation is demanding a full accounting from the government of what happened in 1989. It is not registered in China and Ding Zilin, the leading voice is under constant pressure.

More recently, in November 2002, Li Yibin, publisher of the online magazine “Democracy and Freedom,” was secretly detained and his whereabouts remain unknown. The Observatory fears that many other internet activists have probably been arrested over the past month, but most of these activists have little contact with the outside world, and their disappearances have not yet come to widespread attention. The recent arrests seem to be part of increasing efforts by the Chinese authorities to crack down on free dissemination of news and discussion over the Internet.

The Observatory is also concerned about the situation of Li Hai, detained in 1995 for documenting the cases of some 900 Beijing residents sentenced to long prison terms for their role in the 1989 demonstrations. In 1996, Li Hai was sentenced to a nine-year prison term for “prying into and gathering” state secrets. Li has suffered from serious medical problems in prison, and has not received appropriate medical treatment.

In the economic and social field, independent trade unions are still not allowed. Although China ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2001, it made a reservation to Article 8.1 (a) of the Covenant (the right to form and join a trade union of one’s choice), referring to the contents of national legislation. China has still not ratified the two core ILO Conventions on freedom of association (n°87 and 98). The consequence is that there is only one single trade union in China, workers being denied the right to set up independent unions. The leaders of workers’ protests are systematically arrested. Labour representatives Yao Fuxin, Pang Qingxiang, Xiao Yunliang and Wang Zhaoming, who were arrested during the largest workers demonstration in March 2002 have been detained for more than six months, and to date, they have not been formally charged (on March 11 and 12, over 10,000 workers hit the streets in Liaoyang to demand that the government ensure their right to a decent standard of living).

The Observatory is also concerned about the health of labour rights lawyer Xu Jian, who suffers from acute hepathisis. Xu Jian was arrested in December 1999 and sentenced to four years in prison by the Baotou City Intermediate People’s Court (Inner Mongolia) on July 18, 2000, for allegedly “plotting to overthrow the socialist system and state power”.

A registered legal practitioner in Baotou, Inner-Mongolia, Xu Jian’s only crime was to have provided legal counseling to the workers at his office and via its hotline, as well as helping in filing labour dispute cases for arbitration and litigation. Xu's activities were open and legal.

Freedom of association is not respected either in the religious field. Since July 1999, the Chinese government has forbidden the movement of Falun Gong practitioners and has launched a repression against them. They are victims of an increasing use of torture in order to force them to renounce being part of the movement and reeducation through labour is largely used in the brutal campaign against them.

According to the figures provided on 26 September 2002, by the Falun Gong through the Falun Dafa Information Centre, 485 practitioners have allegedly died since the persecution of Falun Gong in China began in 1999. According to the same source, 100,000 people would have been arbitrarily detained, 20,000 would have been sent to labour camps without trial (for terms up to 3 years), 500 would have been sentenced to extended jail terms (some up to 18 years) 1,000 healthy practitioners are being held in mental institutions.

Freedom of association is also violated in the political field : attempts to set up legal political parties are not tolerated. China Democratic Party (CDP) founding members Xu Wenli, Wang Youcai and Qin Yongmin, who tried to register their Party legally with the Civil Affairs departments are currently undergoing heavy prison sentences. Xu Wenli was sentenced to 13 years in prison and three years’ deprivation of political rights. Wang Youcai was convicted of violating Article 106 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to 11 years in prison. His “crimes,” according to the prosecution, included drafting the CDP declaration; being the prime mover of the CDP; intending to hold a CDP meeting in the form of a tea party; and sending 18 CDP documents abroad by electronic mail. Qin Yongmin was sentenced after a two-and-a-half-hour trial on December 17, 1998, in the Wuhan People’s Intermediate Court. He was convicted of, among other things, “preparing to organise the CDP, editing [the newsletter] China Human Rights Watch, reporting on human rights to the United Nations and linking up with foreign hostile organisations.” He was given a 12-year prison term.

China's 16th Party Congress has drawn a number of petitions and open letters from Chinese dissidents are calling for political reform and greater openness. At the same time, Chinese authorities have begun arresting some vocal dissidents in order to maintain a “peaceful and stable” atmosphere for the Congress.

The recent arrests of human rights and political activists are extremely worrying and damage the hopes raised by the election of the new Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, on November 14. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders therefore calls Chinese authorities to take the present submission into account in order to favour more openness with regard to freedom of opinion, expression and association in China.

We thank you for your attention.

Sincerely yours

Sidiki Kaba
President of the FIDH

Eric Sottas
Director of the OMCT
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